The definition of a balanced diet has become somewhat elusive with the rise in popularity diets that completely eliminate certain food groups. Ketogenic and Paleo diet devotees drastically reduce their carbohydrates and increase their protein and fats, while Vegans eliminate all animal products. So, how do we define “balanced” in this new era of eating?
“It’s tricky, none of these popular diets, with Keto at one end of the extreme and Vegan at the other, are superior to the other,” says nutritionist Mike Roussell, PhD. “It comes down to personal preference, but regardless of which diet you choose, there are certain boxes you need to check when it comes to protein, nutrients, and total energy because your dietary preference doesn’t change your biology.” That is, eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mitigate the need for 30 grams of protein at every meal, and going Keto doesn’t mitigate the need for fiber and minerals. It just makes hitting those dietary targets harder to do. This is particularly difficult for women, who often have a hard time eating enough food in general, and protein specifically, and have different nutrient needs than men. So choose a diet that works for you, but try to check the following boxes.
Eat Enough, Period
Counting calories is not something everyone needs to do. “If you are deliberately eating less, and have been for a while, with a goal of losing weight but you’re not losing weight, you will typically add more exercise,” Roussell says. “When you do that, you will likely be under-eating, and that is the reason for your slow weight loss.” There is a sweet spot metabolically, and if the gap between calories in and calories out is too high, it becomes a stressor, and the body will store food in order to protect itself. The average woman needs to eat 2,000 calories per day, give or take several hundred in either direction based on age, weight and activity level.
Eat Enough Protein
Roussell suggests women eat 30 grams of protein at each meal. For women who are active or trying to lose weight, more protein is always better. For example, athletes – or women who exercise every day – should eat between .55 and .82 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. For a 150-pound woman, that’s between 80 and 125 grams of protein, leaning toward the higher end if your activity level is particularly high or if you’re an endurance athlete. We all know to eat protein from lean sources like meat, fish, and eggs. Plant-based folks, try seitan, tofu, tempeh, lentils, grains like spelt and teff and seeds like amaranth and quinoa. To up your protein intake, try eating your protein source first at meals, so you don’t fill up on carbohydrates. Replace cereal with whole eggs – the yolk contains all the nutrients! - at breakfast. Try Greek yogurt over traditional yogurt. Snack on cheese or nuts. And no matter your dietary preference, you can always add in a protein shake, either whey or a plant-based option, as a meal or snack.
Eat Enough Calcium, Iron, And Folate
Early in life, women deposit calcium into their bones. When they reach their 30s, they draw calcium from their bones, which weakens them. So it’s essential to consume enough calcium at all ages to maximize the amount of calcium you put in when you’re younger and then avoid depleting it later. We most often think of milk, cheese, and yogurt as food sources of calcium, but sesame and chia seeds, beans and lentils, almonds and dark, leafy greens are very high in calcium; one cup of cooked kale gives you 25% of your daily need.
Women need up to 125% more iron than men, especially if they are pre-menopausal. Iron is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to red blood cells so it can be transported from the lungs to the muscles, and iron deficiency can drastically diminish performance and increase your risk of injury. To boost iron levels, eat eggs, red meat, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, lentils, and spinach.
Women of childbearing age also need more folate, or vitamin B-9, to maintain healthy DNA. Folate reduces the chance of birth defects and can lower a woman’s risk for heart disease and certain cancers. Beans, asparagus, leafy greens, beets, and eggs are all high in folate.
Eat The Rainbow
Carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols are likely the phytochemicals you’ve heard of, but there are many others, all only found in plants and responsible for the bright color, odor, and flavor of fruits and vegetables. They are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting. They fight cancer by blocking substances we eat, drink and breathe from becoming carcinogens. Plus, eating lots of fruits and veggies will give you plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber.
Eat Quality Foods
The quality of your food is important. Organic foods have higher nutritional value than non-organic foods because they are less stressed; without pesticides, plants increase their production of the phytochemicals that boost their resistance to bugs and weeds. Plus, eating organic foods decreases your exposure to synthetic pesticides that can alter your gut microbiome. Additionally, choose animal products that are wild-caught or grass-fed, raised without antibiotics or added hormones, that are not genetically modified.
Eat Prebiotics And Probiotics
Eating prebiotic foods like garlic, onions, leeks, apples, asparagus, and cooked potatoes promotes the growth of good gut bacteria and enhance immune function. Eating fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and kefir for probiotics balances the good bacteria in your gut and boosts your immune system. Probiotics have also been linked to a reduction in allergies, digestive disorders, and heart disease.
Eat Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Short-chain omega-3s, such as alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, come from flax, hemp, pumpkin and chia seeds, along with walnuts. ALA can prevent heart disease and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are found in eggs, algae, salmon and other fish. They are anti-inflammatory, essential for brain health and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Eat Functional Foods When You Can
Functional foods have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. Beets are highly antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and increase our nitric oxide levels, which increases blood flow to your muscles. Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, is anti-inflammatory, and improves vascular function and reduces insulin sensitivity. Tart cherry juice is antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, while the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut fuel your brain and promote fat loss. The enzyme bromelain, found in pineapple, is anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory and aids in digestion. The mushroom cordyceps increases stamina and energy by increasing blood flow and improving oxygen utilization.